After a couple of days in Orlando, we wanted to take a break from amusement park lines and steep entrance fees. Gatorland (Alligator Capital of the World) did not sound entirely like our cup of tea, but, at $26.99 for adults/$18.99 for kids 3-12 (and a $2.50 discount available online), it seemed at least try-worthy. To my complete amazement, this was a resounding success–especially where stunning, startlingly relaxed wading birds were concerned. And BIRDS were everywhere.
In cool Florida January, alligators and crocodiles were torpid, which made the birds even bolder: egrets, ibises, cormorants, herons showed up in droves. It began at the entrance, by the alligator nursery, rough wet alligator backs glistening in the mid-morning light.
The same picture greeted us everywhere: Birds perched by, on, and among the alligators, who barely moved under lazy winter rays.
I have never seen so many large shore birds up close, entirely unbothered by my presence. The variety on our birdwatching menu was superb.
The most memorable of all: a wood stork, very large but gentle, was surprisingly unnerving at an arms-length.
I felt like I was being sized up by a pensive pterodactyl.
The centerpiece of all this activity is the Breeding Marsh and Rookery, where 130 alligators procreate in a natural environment. A three-story observation deck and wooden walkways provide great views of the water and all who live in it–the marsh is also a popular nesting and roosting site for all manner of shorebirds (with alligators below,
nests are protected from raccoons, snakes, and other non-crocodilian predators). Elaborate courting displays and nesting behaviors can be observed from late winter well into summer. February to June, photo passes ($30, or $10 on top of your regular ticket) are available to enter the park at 7:30 am (two and a half hours before the park usually opens) to capture nesting couples at their morning chores. I will definitely try this next time we come here. In early January, it was too early for bird romance.
Another surprising Gatorland highlight: a stroll through the cypress swamp at the park’s southern reaches, a 15-minute glimpse into what central Florida looked like before its wetlands were drained for development.
Looking at central Florida now, it is hard to believe that THIS is what it once was:
In January, grey and brown were dominant swamp colors, with vivid patches of emerald ferns, mosses, and young plants poking through the still, black water. It all seemed–enchanted, still, and peaceful.
The Swamp Walk is mostly unadorned, but some friendly educational signs do pop up here and there. And lucky that they do–I would have missed air plants otherwise. I first saw them at Bok Gardens, another unexpected central Florida gem, but here they were less of a centerpiece–just batches of narrow, long leaves on bark, life clinging to everything, anything in reach.
Back in gator realm, birds were not the only thing we paid attention to, of course. Through the haze of feathers, alligators and crocodiles from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America lounged and looked menacing despite their stagnant moods.
The most creepy of all were the two Cuban crocodiles, Lily and Ricardo–the smartest of all Gatorland’s creatures. They seemed to respond to their names and were wide awake and perfectly alert. Their enclosure was free of birds, I noticed.
This picture does not do them justice: It was dusk when we saw them, during the memorable Night Shine tour, an evening walk through the park to the Breeding Marsh, absolutely worth the additional $19.99. It was fascinating to watch this place wind down (or awaken) for the night.
As the sky darkened, we got to appreciate just how many birds Gatorland attracts: ghostly white forms, hundreds and hundreds of them, seemed to cover every branch around the Breeding Marsh, going suddenly quiet after all the commotion–breathtaking to see and hear! Not to mention the myriad of glowing alligator eyes in the water: Did you know that alligator eyes glow in the dark? Here they are, in eerie constellations–a fitting farewell memory for a day full of surprises:
Other Posts about Central Florida: